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Far Eastern Sea Serpents

The sea serpent is as common in oriental folklore as in its occidental counterparts. In China the legends merge into purely mythical accounts of sea dragons, which have the disconcerting talent of shape shifting, but the more credible tales seem to describe something very similar to the sea serpent, in China called the Kiao or Shan.

The less fanciful accounts of the Kiao describe it as a cross between a dragon and a serpent, with a small head, fine neck and a girth of about 15ft (4.6m). A lake, dweller, it is said to be solitary. A possible distinction between it and the Shan is that the latter lives at sea.

The Shan is the Eastern Sea Dragon that unlike the Kiao, who is a lake dweller, lives in the sea. The Shan is described as serpentine but with ears, horns and a red mane. Until recently the Malays and Chinese believed sea serpents were responsible for ambergris, which they call 'dragon spittle'. In the History of the Ming Dynasty, a Chinese author describes a place called Dragon Spittle Island in the Sea of Lambri.

'Every spring, numerous Shan come together to play on this island and they leave behind their spittle. The natives afterwards go in canoes to the spot and collect this spittle ... When burnt it has a pure and delicious fragrance'. It was sold in markets for over a hundred gold pieces per pound. Confusion comes from a common assertion that the Kiao Shan's breath looks like a column or tower, which must refer to whales spouting. But there are tales enough of monsters which cannot be whales.

The mouth of the Chien Tang river was once terrorized by a large sea serpent, as were many other estuaries. In some places virgins were sacrificed to appease the monster until some hero came along to slay the beast.

In the 19th century many oriental sea serpents were seen by Europeans. Some were shown to be frauds or hysterical exaggerations, but several accounts cannot be easily dismissed - though, as always, many witnesses regretted having gone public. The Straits Times Overland Joumal carried a lively correspondence on the matter. Particularly dramatic was the encounter in September 1876 between the SS Nestor and a 'sea serpent' in the Straits of Malacca which seemed rather different to most, though very Chinese.

The creature first appeared about 200yd (180m) to starboard. About 200ft (60m) long, it kept pace with the steamer for a while before diving and resurfacing on the vessel's other side. All in all the beast was visible to passengers and crew for about half an hour. Many of these people came forward later with their individual versions of events, which were in broad agreement with that supplied by Captain John Webster:

'It had a square head and a dragon black and white striped tail, and an immense body, which was quite fifty feet (I 5m) broad when the monster raised it. The head was about twelve feet (3.70 broad, and appeared to be, at the extreme, about six feet (1.8m) above the water ... The long dragon tail with black and white scales afterwards rose in an undulating motion, in which at one time the head, at another the body, and eventually the tail, formed each in its turn a prominent object above the water.'

One suggestion taken quite seriously at the time was that the 'Nestor' monster was not a serpent but a giant turtle. There is a healthy tradition in the Far East of giant marine turtles. Rather confusingly, they are often called 'shan' in China to distinguish them from common turtles, so some tales about Shan may refer either to sea serpents or giant turtles.

An ancient Book of Physiognomy appears to say that the name Kiao Shan means crossed eyebrows' but possibly something got lost in the translation. In both China and Japan the Kiao is said to sprout wings and take to the air when it reaches a certain age or size, emitting a beautiful music that sounds like 'singing stones'.

There is in the Far East a well - known living 'dragon' species, named the Komodo Dragon because its primary (almost its only) habitat is Indonesia's Komodo Island. This giant monitor lizard usually grows to about 12ft (3.7m), but speeimens twice as long have been reported. The creatures migrate by sea between Komodo and three other Indonesian islands. Specimens washed out to sea may well have given rise to some sea - monster tales, but none of great importance.